Pope John Paul II's election underscores church's human side - Catholic Courier

Pope John Paul II’s election underscores church’s human side

Thursday of this week was the 30th anniversary of the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Cracow, to the papacy. John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI in 1522. (What follows is adapted from my book, Lives of the Popes, published originally in 1997 and translated later into Polish and other languages.)

John Paul I had died suddenly — for some, mysteriously — during the night of Sept. 28, 1978, after only 33 days as pope. The cardinals returned quickly to Rome in a state of virtual shock, determined this time to elect someone in better health.

The two leading candidates in this unexpected second round were Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, Archbishop of Genoa, who was being touted by the conservative Italian press, and Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, Archbishop of Florence and a longtime member of the Roman Curia.

Many in the Benelli coalition regarded Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the vicar of Rome, as a backup candidate, but others felt that it was time for a non-Italian if Benelli failed to achieve the two-thirds necessary for election.

The leading figures among the non-Italians were Cardinal Jan Willibrands of Holland and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland. Cardinal Koenig of Vienna was particularly interested in Wojtyla as a man who understood from bitter experience the situation of the church behind the Iron Curtain.

Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia was confident that he could deliver most of the American votes, and the German cardinals were also solidly behind Wojtyla as the one non-Italian they could support. They liked his toughness in the face of the Communists as well as his intelligence and political pragmatism.

The Germans also felt that they could persuade many of the Third World cardinals to support Wojtyla because they (the Germans) were the source of so much financial assistance to the church in their countries.

Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil was also strongly in favor of Wojtyla because of his speeches at the world synods of bishops, his cultural breadth, and his commitments to evangelization and to the world’s poor and oppressed.

But first the Italians had to be allowed to elect one of their own, out of respect for a centuries-old tradition.

Unfortunately for Cardinal Siri, a provocative interview that he had given to one of the conservative Roman newspapers was left at every cardinal-elector’s door on the morning of the conclave. In the interview, Siri mocked the Second Vatican Council’s doctrine of collegiality and spoke strongly against democratic trends in the church.

At the end of the first ballot, Cardinal Siri was in the lead, but far short of the 50 votes his supporters had hoped for. Benelli was not far behind — also in the 30s. Wojtyla had five votes. The rest were scattered among the other Italian cardinals.

On the second ballot, Siri’s vote total declined by about a half-dozen (another report said that he actually increased his vote slightly), and Benelli took the lead. This alarmed the Italian cardinals who worked in the Curia. They vowed to do everything in their power to stop Benelli, whom they resented for having engineered the election of John Paul I and for being a strong-willed colleague within the Curia.

On the third ballot, Siri lost votes, some of which drifted to the 76-year-old Cardinal Carlo Colombo, Archbishop of Milan. Benelli, meanwhile, peaked somewhere below the two-thirds necessary for election and began falling back. On the fourth ballot, there was a surge of votes for Colombo as a compromise acceptable to the Italians, while Wojtyla’s vote rose to about 10.

However, Colombo announced that, if elected, he would not accept. No other Italian was deemed electable, even though Cardinal Poletti received a significant number of votes, so the cardinals turned elsewhere for a candidate.

Cardinal Koenig campaigned openly for Wojtyla that evening. On the fifth ballot, Wojtyla’s vote count doubled from around 10 to around 20, but there also was a show of support for Cardinal Willebrands. On the sixth ballot, before lunch, Wojtyla’s vote doubled again to about 40.

Before the next ballot, Willebrands asked his supporters to unite behind Wojtyla, who was just shy of two-thirds on the seventh ballot. He went over the top on the eighth and final ballot, but his election was not made unanimous. A handful of Cardinal Siri’s supporters held out to the end.

The newly elected pope was only 58 years old. He would remain in office for 26¬Ω years.

Many Catholics continue to believe that the Holy Spirit determines the outcome of every conclave. But the clearly political nature of this election and of most others before it underscores the church’s human side.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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